I feel like “space” was a really common setting for many games of the 8- and 16-bit eras. And why not? Everyone everywhere was still kind of coasting on the good vibes of Star Wars and Aliens, and the setting itself allowed for a degree of freedom; not that it really mattered a ton on the NES but making your enemies invaders from the stars meant they could look and act like basically whatever you felt like drawing and programming. I was pretty into space as a kid, but not in a scientific way – being an actual astronaut would be boring as hell, but I was always down for Rad Gravity or Solar Jetman or really any game that gave me the slightest pretense of leaving the chains of Earth’s gravity to launch myself into battle against nefarious invaders/native citizens of other planets who weren’t really bothering anyone.
Due to the popularity and/or wide-ranging gameplay styles of ‘games set in space’ (which, let’s face it, isn’t a super helpful descriptor for anyone), obviously there were going to be a few that slipped through the cracks of my youthful video game times. One, however, stuck with me a bit more than others, and now that I’m a grown up with my own money, I can finally put it to bed. Hubcap, Ironhide, what are we playing today?
Air Fortress, known in its native Japan as Air Fortress, is a combination shoot-em-up (really, let’s try to avoid saying shmup, everyone) and platformer developed by…HAL Laboratories? Yessir, in those wilderness years before getting forever associated with Nintendo first-party gems like Earthbound and everything involving Kirby, HAL was just another Japanese developer who specialized in adorably fat sprites and random difficulty spikes, and was responsible for what may be the greatest Ghostbusters game ever. Air Fortress was an earlier Famicom/NES effort for them, released in Japan a few years before the first Adventures of Lolo, receiving a brief (and unconfirmed) mail-order test release in America before seeing wide release in 1989. Which is probably where this ad comes from!
Remember magazines, you guys? This ad, and an accompanying write-up in Game Players’ (likely the same issue I learned about Totally Rad from) got me curious about Air Fortress for a few reasons: why did it look like two games at once, was the guy you play as a cat-man-astronaut, and aren’t HAL the Lolo people? This particular ad gets bonus points for featuring Vegas Dream, a game I have fond memories of watching my dad play because I felt like I was getting to stay up late doing cool grown up stuff – also, the game over screen is a really funny picture of you walking back to the airport, destitute and despondent.
So I found a cheap copy of Air Fortress at a local flea market, and after nearly an hour of scrubbing the contacts with brass cleaner (this may have been the grossest cart I’ve ever had to clean) I was off on my adventure! And the first thing I’m confronted with is a shocking amount of plot for a NES game. I’ve included it below, since it really does provide a good amount of context and is mildly amusing in its own right:
With this knowledge in mind, I stepped into the clunky red boots of…Hal Bailman and set off on my…lightship…to do…something.
As it turns out, each level is a 30-70 split between the two different gameplay styles. As you approach each Air Fortress, you play the shoot-em-up segment. These are fun, but nothing terribly special; flying around, dodging enemy fire, returning fire with your own kind of slow and un-upgradable lasers. You and your enemies both move pretty slow, even compared with other space shooters of the time, so if you’re historically bad at them (like this guy rightchere) you won’t get too frustrated.
Along the way you keep picking up mysterious bubbles named “B” and “E”, which don’t seem to help too much at first since your gun never fires any faster and you die in one hit from anything, even the slightly indistinguishable background hazards like poop-green asteroids. The shoot-em-up segments are…okay at best, and I initially felt like I might be sort of disappointed by Air Fortress, until something wonderful happened.
I got off of my spaceship.
I really didn’t remember/know a lot about this game going into it, so imagine my surprise when you got off your sled. At the end of each shooter section, Hal lands, disembarks, and enters an ominously unmarked door where you’re greeted with the following warning:
And this is where things get kinda awesome. It turns out the power ups you collected in the previous segment are for this part of the level, with the ‘E’ meaning health/energy and the ‘B’ technically being a ‘crash beam bullet’ but in human language that’s a bomb. Your job is to now clean out the inside of the Air Fortress and destroy the core.
These parts play just enough like your average NES action game to not be unfamiliar, but with a few twists. The biggest one is that your lifebar is constantly counting down and refilling. Moving causes it to drain, standing still causes it to refill. Getting hit lowers your total health instead of just subtracting some from your current amount; pretend you have 800 health total, but you get shot, so when you quit moving to let your gauge refill it only goes back up to 790.
Moving around by itself is also weird and fun enough to be different. You don’t have a jump, per se. The A and B buttons are too busy firing your two kinds of projectiles, so upward movement is controlled by hitting up on the d-pad, and it’s really more of a ‘float’ than anything. Holding it propels you indefinitely upward (until you hit something, obv) but you have a surprising amount of control over it, and Hal (not HAL) feels surprisingly responsive when trying to navigate around the myriad obstacles in each one, because good lord every damn thing in the Air Fortress wants you dead.
Really, as soon as you go inside, the game takes a turn for the difficult. Even with a butt-ton of energy and bombs, everything in this game is trying to kill you. Turrets have bullets that follow you around way longer than is fair, cute little sentry drones have shockingly precise aim and fast projectiles, and there’s way too many platforms that can get you helplessly stuck underneath them as you watch an easy 100-200 points of health get pissed into the wind. Poor Hal isn’t as fast or as nimble as he needs to be and it’s a giant problem.
And we’re not even to the really upsetting part. So the end of each level, as you may expect, is a showdown with a giant pulsing core that doesn’t fight back. The first time you do this it goes well enough; a few well-placed bombs, and the whole place grows dark while you walk on back to your lightship. All to lull you into a false sense of security.
Starting with the second Air Fortress, destroying the core begins a self-destruct timer not unlike the end of every Metroid, but…kinda scarier. You’re not given any kind of specific readout as to when the Fortress will explode, merely the increasing dimness of the level and the violent shaking of the screen to hustle you along. The music gets unsettling and minor-key (as opposed to the heroic marches that play through the rest of the game), and your stupid goddamn spaceship is never in the same goddamn place you came in from. That was my undoing – the first time it happened, I was so put off by the shaking and the music that I got lost and died. I didn’t know where the hell I was or what was happening, and in a blind panic I thought maybe I just had to get back to the beginning of the level. NOPE. I led poor Hal into a dead end, and as the screen turned white and awesome 8-bit explosions ripped through my speakers, Hal died alone in space, as we all truly will one day. Kinda heavy stuff for a NES game, particularly from a developer known for more cutesy themes and imagery.
So was it worth the wait? Sort of. Once you get past the initial horror and shock of the surprisingly dark and vicious self-destruct sequences, the game gets sort of…samey. Nothing really visually differentiates the individual levels through the game, with maybe a different color palette and increasing difficulty to set them apart. I only got to maybe the fourth or fifth Air Fortress before I got mad enough to quit, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m missing a ton (other than what will surely be a wordy credits sequence explaining Hal’s victory).
But on the other hand I sure am glad I played it as an adult. I had a pretty short attention span for games that were too hard as a kid, and even had I made it to the end of that second Air Fortress I may not have been able to handle the pressure of trying to escape and quit. I was kind of a dumb weenie as a kid, and I’m glad at least that didn’t color my impressions of Air Fortress going forward. Besides, there’s passwords, so at least I don’t have to be in a giant hurry to finish it or anything.
I think my biggest impression of Air Fortress is that it seems like a rough draft for an awesome game as opposed to just being a pretty good one on its own. The mechanics are well-done and innovative, and the switching between shooter-and-platformer seems like a natural development that more games should have tried but few did. Call me a cynic, but considering how many indie games these days openly poach mechanics from previous titles, I’m shocked nobody’s done a “this is just like Air Fortress but with bad anime art and it’s on Steam” yet.
Wait. I’m doing that, I call dibs. I still know how to use Multimedia Fusion 2.
NEXT TIME ON VIDEO-TRON 2000: ’90s nostalgia speeds towards its natural termination point with the return of Surge! Be there!